Blended Physical and Digital Classes the Norm for MBA Programs This Fall

There will much more digital delivery of MBA programs in the new academic year, but campuses are reopening around the world, albeit with smaller class sizes and social distancing

After three months of Zoom classes, MBA student Anthony Wilson is finally — and happily — back at IMD Business School in Lausanne, Switzerland. But campus life looks different after the lockdown that forced all of the institution’s teaching online in mid-March.

IMD has put in place a range of coronavirus measures to protect student and staff welfare, including temperature checks, compulsory face masks, smaller class sizes, plexiglass screens and scheduling systems to ensure social distancing.

The campus is a window on the next academic year at business school. While many institutions are still on a summer break until fall, IMD’s course runs from January to December. Switzerland was among the first in Europe to loosen its lockdown, with universities given the green light to reopen from early June.

Wilson, who is South African, insists IMD’s protective measures have not diminished the student experience. “It is broadly the same as it was pre-corona. We were all itching to get back on campus. We were losing motivation,” he says, adding that “Zoom fatigue” invariably reduced the quality of group discussion that is the bedrock of an MBA.

MBAs: blending online and in-class learning

Around the world, business schools are putting in place plans for the start of the academic year. In the UK, Cambridge Judge Business School expects to blend online and in-person teaching, albeit with smaller numbers of students in physical classes and social distancing.

This flexible approach provides breathing space for change depending on how the pandemic evolves.

Christoph Loch, the dean of Judge, sees the crisis as an unexpected opportunity to invest in digital delivery of business education, which may leave a lasting legacy on his venerable institution. “We are developing additional online pedagogy to raise the experience to a new level,” he says.

“We’re convinced that even after things return to something approaching normalcy, many of the creative, digital-delivery aspects of this year will be incorporated into our future approach.” 

Most schools expect to adopt a blended method, which reflects concerns that travel curbs will prevent international students from enrolling at start of term. But many institutions are reluctant to forecast too far ahead. Some are still coping with a short-term shift to digital delivery because of campus closures.

“We need to acknowledge that we might not yet have all the answers to the many complex questions triggered by the pandemic,” says Eric Cornuel, president of the European Foundation for Management Development in Belgium. “As in any crisis, transparency and communication are key.”

Some schools are also dealing with demands for tuition fee refunds for the current year and applications for deferrals to next year. For instance, Harvard Business School has guaranteed every incoming MBA student a deferral to a later date.

Students want certainty. There are concerns that ambiguity is hitting the finances of schools in marketized education sectors that rely on tuition fee income, such as Australia.

Universities UK, which represents the British sector, believes that a loss of tuition fees because of deferrals and dropouts could amount to a £7bn fall in revenue for 2020/21. A government bailout for UK universities has fallen short of what many institutions had hoped for.

Over in the US, Bill Boulding, dean of Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, cites concerns that travel restrictions are likely to limit business schools’ ability to enroll overseas students. That would reduce the diverse range of views that enrich learning through group debate.

Meanwhile, there is a substantial backlog of visas to process because of the closure of consulates across the globe. But the large number of overseas students at Fuqua will be able to study initially from their home nations if necessary.

“We are prepared to open our doors, we will have students in classrooms,” says Boulding. “But like the majority of schools, we will combine this with online activity, because there may be issues with people being able to get their visas in time for the start of the MBA.”

Demand for MBA degrees on the rise, amid uncertainties

And yet, despite the uncertainties, many business schools report robust demand for their MBAs after several consecutive years of declines in the US. Fuqua’s applications are up by double-digits on last year, which partly reflects a counter-cyclical pattern to MBA admissions with demand rising as the economy contracts.

Boulding expects an even larger spike in applications next year if, as expected, the economic outlook worsens, and unemployment rates continue to surge amid forecasts for the worst recession in several generations. 

“The economic dislocation has been so dramatic and uncertainty so high that people are inclined to sit on the sidelines and jump in the game a year from now,” he says.

Ansgar Richter, the newly-appointed dean of Rotterdam School of Management in the Netherlands, also puts a slight increase in demand down to the economic crunch.   

RSM reopened in June, but some classes will remain online. Richter is considering renting additional teaching facilities to expand capacity during social distancing. He is also exploring the launch of an Online MBA program to capture strong demand.  

Yet he warns that some admitted students may not show up at the start of term, even though they have paid a deposit, due to the travel curbs and visa application bottlenecks.  

He guards against the risk of dropouts by keeping numbers of faculty members — a high fixed cost — intentionally low, supplemented by external lecturers who are not on the payroll and can help to meet rising demand quickly.

“It’s extremely difficult to plan ahead because people are deciding almost at the last minute whether to enrol,” says Richter. “But the fact that we are seeing a year-over-year increase in demand, amid all the uncertainty, gives me hope.”

At IE Business School in Spain, Igor Souto Araujo, associate director of the International MBA program, also cites positive outcomes from the pandemic. “This experience has been a challenging one, and also a great learning opportunity,” he says.

“It has helped us create an education model that will prepare our students to enter a world that is an ever-increasing blend of the physical and digital environments.”

Back at IMD, MBA dean Sean Meehan adds that the fallout has provided fertile ground for leadership development. “The students have learned how to cope with adversity, be more resilient and lead virtual teams, which is a required skill in lockdown,” he says.

“They have learned more about leadership this year than ever.”

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